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Bell & Ross: Timepieces With Military Precision

In the first of a new film series, MR PORTER looks at the watchmaker inspired by wartime instruments

As a general rule, France-based watch companies are one of two things: either classical and elegant, or whimsically artistic to the point of parody. But not always. Bell & Ross, founded in 1992 and headquartered in Paris, is neither of these things.

The company, which launched on MR PORTER this week, has always taken a subversive, experimental approach to watchmaking. In fact, for a long time, its German- and then more recently Swiss-made watches were the market disruptors.

In the beginning, it set out its stall making watches for astronauts, bomb-disposal experts and military pilots – lantern-jawed types. The approach was technical and professional, but it had attitude, too.

Then, in the mid-2000s, Bell & Ross created one of the defining watches of the decade – and the watch that defines the brand still – the BR 01. This was an over-sized, square-cased watch brimming with pre-financial crisis bravura that had clearly not spent long on the designer’s sketchpad on its journey from aircraft cockpit instrument panel to wristwatch. It established Bell & Ross as one of the high-flyers among makers of pilot’s watches.

Today, while the BR 01 lives on, Bell & Ross’s tastes have mellowed. It’s not lost its spirit, though. The BR 03, a more modestly proportioned version of the BR 01, is among the most popular lines in the collection, while in the Vintage family, quirky pieces with historic connections sit alongside a handsome range of very wearable sports watches.

The fil rouge, as the French would say, that runs through the collection is an obsession with design, as this film serves to showcase. Proportion and detail dominate Bell & Ross watches, which, largely speaking, are designed with function and purpose in mind. Not exclusively, mind. Where would the fun be in that?

BR 03 Phantom 42mm

The square-cased look is Bell & Ross’s signature and has made the BR 03 among the most instantly recognisable designs in watchmaking. This 42mm model proves the playfulness of the company’s designers. Everything here is black, from the lightweight matt ceramic case to the luminescent numerals, to the point the watch becomes ghost-like, hence the name.

BR 03 GMT 42mm

Bell & Ross is first and foremost a pilot’s watch brand, and there is no watchmaking complication more closely tied to aviation than a GMT, or second time-zone function. The first GMT watches were designed in the 1950s for pilots looking to cope with jet lag. Today, they’re popular with all kinds of frequent fliers. This steel-cased BR 03 has a tool-like quality to it, heightened by an orange-tipped central hour hand that’s read off against a 24-hour scale engraved into the bezel.

WW1-92 Military 45mm

The move of the watch from pockets to wrists came about largely because soldiers and early aircraft pilots needed quick and easy access to the time. They took their pocket watches and threaded straps through wire loop lugs they soldered to the cases, and then fastened them to their wrists. Bell & Ross’s Vintage WWI-92 Military is a celebration of those early watches. Its matt grey, glass-bead-blasted steel case is 45mm wide and houses an automatic movement.

BR 123 Sport Heritage Automatic 43mm

Dig around in the collection and, as well as the flagship pilot watches, you’ll find some terrific sports watches, too. The BR 123 Sport Heritage is a case in point. Mechanically, it’s a straight-up three-hand automatic with a date. Aesthetically, it’s a chic, racing-inspired, hugely versatile piece of watch design. Going back to the brand’s design obsessiveness, note the retro slimline bezel and the gently bubbled sapphire crystal, as well as the balance of the sand-coloured hands and hour markers against the red script on the dial. The devil’s in the detail.

BR 126 Sport Heritage GMT and Flyback Chronograph 43mm

The Bell & Ross BR 126 collection is still in sports watch territory. These take the basic form of the BR123 and add in mechanical complications, in this case a flyback chronograph that can be reset and restarted with a single push of the button at 4 o’clock, and a GMT function that shows a second time zone via a gilted central hand tipped with a pointer in the shape of a fighter plane. The success of this model is in the warm masculinity created by the combination of black and gold details with a tan leather strap.